Cost overruns on Stockton’s new City Hall are entering boondoggle territory, all the more vexing because city leaders made the same costly mistake before.
Of course, the city has also suffered pandemic inflation. But that doesn’t fully explain how buying and renovating the Waterfront Towers at 501 and 509 W. Weber Ave. for around $25 million tripled to $74.5 million.
“There was not appropriate analysis done about what needed to be done to the building to move into it,” said city spokesperson Connie Cochran. “That now has been done.”
That admission – that city leaders bought a pig in a poke and only looked at it afterwards – runs directly counter to the city’s narrative of post-bankruptcy fiscal prudence.
To be fair, the city has been fiscally prudent, in most areas. Enough so that the $898.7 million budget for fiscal year 2022-23 allows Stockton to emerge blinking and pale from the bunker of austerity and sink some money into improving the city and its workforce.
But something about City Hall buildings seems to jam leaders’ brain waves. No “appropriate analysis” on a $25 million purchase? And why does this gaffe trigger déjà vu?
A little history.
First, previous city leaders failed to maintain Stockton’s historic 1926 City Hall, preferring instead to enrich themselves with the wildly excessive wages and benefits that contributed to the city’s bankruptcy.
Then, when the building fell to smash and became too costly to repair, the city in 2007 paid $35 million for the eight-story bank building at 400 E. Main Street.
The city invested millions more in outfitting the building — and lost the building to foreclosure in bankruptcy.
In bankruptcy court, the city cut a lease deal with the owner, paying millions more in rent in exchange for debt reduction elsewhere. But the city never did move all its workforce in because belatedly they realized needed repairs were too costly.
There was no appropriate analysis done.
Where are the appropriate analysis guys in this city? Has anybody checked in on them lately?
The shortcomings they missed this time, according to a (belated) city staff analysis are things including …
“ … but not limited to, new and renovated lighting systems, fire alarm system, power systems, data and telecommunication systems, fire sprinkler and fire suppression systems, HVAC mechanical systems, plumbing systems, interior metal wall framing, gypsum board, doors and windows, security systems, audio visual system, interior finishes, accessories, and signage, fireproofing, modernization of the existing elevators, and minor frontage modifications adjacent to the site …”
Overlooking “minor frontage modifications” is one thing; overlooking the fire system, H/VAC, plumbing and other essential systems is … negligence.
The two city execs (ir)responsible are City Manager Kurt Wilson and Economic Development Director Micah Runner, said city spokeswoman Connie Cochran. Neither work for the city anymore.
It’s a fact that everyone is being gob-smacked by pandemic inflation. I haven’t seen a city estimate on its impact to the cost of the Waterfront Towers, but it is undoubtedly substantial.
And, if you look at other city initiatives on the waterfront, you find good news.
- The city last Friday broke ground on a 11,000 square-foot, three-story “navigation center” near the waterfront with beds and services to reduce homelessness locally and countywide.
- The city is negotiating with a developer to build 575 housing units, park and “civic space,” as well as retail on 8.78 acres of city land west of the Waterfront Towers. If the deal closes, the waterfront goes from afterthought to nucleus.
- The city is spending $2.5 million to bring the arena’s scoreboard and sound system into the 21st century. This, coupled with the Stockton Heat’s departure, which frees up many dates, means the arena should be able to book more sports events, family shows, and concerts.
How unfortunate that runaway city hall costs undermine the proud FY 2022-23 budget message from City Manager Harry Black: “The lessons learned from the not-so-distant past continue to underpin our financial planning and decision-making.”
With one glaring exception.
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.